Monthly Archives: November 2014

A Gaijin’s Perspective of Touring Tokyo

The Japanese term gaijin, despite some pejorative overtones, generally refers to a person of non-Japanese ethnicity – particularly Caucasians. I’ll be the first to admit that such a term would apply to me. In fact, I feel no shame whatsoever. Considering all the trouble white males have inflicted upon the world throughout history, putting up with a little name-calling seems a paltry price to pay.

Regardless of ethnicity, a visit to Japan is a visit to a culture that even in this modern world – or specifically in the case of Tokyo, very modern world – still echoes a time where honor and dignity were held in great esteem. You see it in the traditional bows upon greeting; the care of a small but immaculately manicured garden; the cleanliness and pride of those handling even the most menial of tasks. Such things can easily escape unnoticed in the hectic bustle of the capital city, but all it takes is a few moments of poignant reflection to appreciate the Japanese essence of what outwardly appears to be at the apex of consumer-based society.

All that commercialism has brought Tokyo from a pile of bombed-out rubble (courtesy of more of those gaijins) to the very definition of a concrete jungle. With a population of over 34 million in its urban area, it isn’t hard to imagine why there are so many buildings spreading in all directions. It also isn’t hard to find some decent sushi. Even a gaijin can appreciate that.

The neon glitter of Ginza, Tokyo

The neon glitter of Ginza, Tokyo

If your visit to Tokyo is for leisure rather than business, there are some sights worth taking in. Occupying some of the most valuable real estate in the world is the Ginza section – a tornado of neon lights and hordes of pedestrians. This is Japan’s answer to Times Square, with all the energy and wattage associated with it. It is also considered a shopping Mecca and you can easily lose yourself in one of the palatial department stores or high-end boutiques. Or if you’re a man like me, you can just stare at the pretty lights instead.

If it’s energy and nightlife you’re after, the Roppongi district has its fair share of restaurants and clubs to cater to the hip crowd that gathers there. Being not only a gaijin but a married gaijin (the most boring kind), this wasn’t really my scene; but there was no mistaking that this was the place to be young and single. Either that or hungry – which better explained my own visit there.

Yes modernity is the order of the day in Tokyo, but it might seem a bit unfulfilling for someone hoping to see a little more tradition. This is not to say that the small restaurants with the self-serve conveyor belts aren’t a fun way to have lunch, or that the automatic toilets in your hotel room aren’t the pinnacle of convenience. In fact, after using one such commode – hands free – I was instantly reminded of my favorite episode of The Simpsons where upon arriving in their Tokyo hotel room, an electronic toilet tells Homer that it would be honored to accept his waste, prompting him to yell out “They’re years ahead of us!!!”

Scenic Ueno Park, Tokyo

Scenic Ueno Park, Tokyo

For a taste of the aforementioned tradition, you can visit the National Museum located in Ueno Park, which also houses a zoo, aquarium and many other attractions – easily enough for a full day’s exploration. And on certain days that aren’t named Monday or Friday, you can stroll through the Imperial Palace East Garden – an oasis of green in the Marunouchi district. If you come in April you may get to see the famous cherry blossoms. You will also get to see enormous crowds and higher prices on lodging, so…it’s your call.
For those hoping to see some of the famous Japanese landscapes, the most impressive natural attraction in Japan is easily accessible on a day trip from Tokyo. Rising over 12,000 feet is the perfect cone of Fuji-san, long considered sacred by the Japanese and perhaps its most recognizable icon. Over a million people each year climb the dormant volcano (which requires an overnight stay and is only possible in the summer months of July and August) while millions of others are content to visit the resort towns nestled along its base. As a gaijin with limited time and stamina, I opted for the latter, taking a bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station out to Kawaguchi-ko, or Lake Kawaguchi.

Mt. Fuji as seen from Lake Kawaguchi

Mt. Fuji as seen from Lake Kawaguchi

This small town had more charm than the urban jungles to the east, with quiet lanes and even quieter eateries. There’s a cable car that takes guests to the summit of a lesser peak, offering great views of the lake and mountain. It’s almost as if an experience like this is necessary to even begin to understand the national psyche, and even a gaijin can start to grasp the appreciation for nature that permeates all levels of Japanese society regardless of the staggering industrialization that characterizes the country.

Most international flights arrive at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, sited some 40 miles outside of the city. There are multiple train and bus options to get you back and forth, all with varying degrees of cost and time; yet on average it will take at least an hour, and for the better options somewhere between 1000-3000 Yen. Or $8.50-$25 USD/6.75-20 Euro for you gaijins.

Getting around town, the subway system is extensive, albeit a bit confusing – not to mention crowded. But it will take you just about anywhere you would want to go, as well as link you with bus and train terminals that serve as gateways to the rest of the country.

Something that struck me as odd was how few people in Japan actually spoke English. Perhaps this was just some lingering American narcissism, but I had always imagined the Japanese as being obsessed with American culture. In my defense, the movies of the 1980’s always presented things that way, so it was a bit surprising not to see much in the way of signage in my mother tongue. Apparently, expecting other nations to speak my language is soooo gaijin.

Tokyo may not be the prettiest of cities, and is nowhere near the cheapest, but you don’t have to be smitten by this megalopolis to appreciate it. This is a testament to the industriousness and resourcefulness of a nation. This is a showcase of all that is good and bad with a consumer-based society. And it is launching point for exploring one of the most influential cultures of the Far East. Love it or hate it, it has a place in the pantheon of world cities, where you’ll encounter a blend of modern and traditional, a rigid work ethic tempered by an ability to party, and more Japanese than you’ve ever imagined. You might even encounter a gaijin or two. Just be sure to bow.

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It Took Me 39 Years to Cross 14 Miles to Block Island (But it was Worth the Wait)

New England Charm is everywhere on Block Island

New England Charm is everywhere on Block Island

To properly understand this piece, I need to provide a brief snapshot of my life at the time of writing. I am currently 39 years old and have lived my entire life on Long Island, NY, which for the benefit of all those reading this article out loud, is properly pronounced Lawn-GUY-lind. As a native of Suffolk County (the eastern half) I am quite familiar with the general topography, geology, flora and fauna of the region. So for me the idea of expending the effort and expense just to visit Block Island – inconveniently placed some 14 miles off the tip of Montauk Point (a.k.a. The End) – just didn’t make sense, as I reasoned that there’s nothing they could have there that I couldn’t get here. And as turns out, I was right. But that still doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth the visit.
Travel isn’t always 100% fueled by desire. There are also those rare occasions when travel opportunities present themselves for next to nothing – or in this particular case, literally nothing, for me at least. Due to the fortunate combination of a gloriously sunny summer day, my Dad’s newly-acquired pilot’s license, and his subsequent urge to use said license to explore the region, I was invited along on a day trip that after decades of traipsing about all seven continents, would finally bring me to this little gem right in my own backyard.

For the record, for those who have the means or opportunity I would highly recommend the short flight to the island as opposed to the sometimes nauseating ferry ride, which in summertime is about an hour long from Montauk, NY as well as Port Judith, RI and New London, CT. Block Island is technically out in the North Atlantic, and though not very far into it, let’s just say things can get a little choppy. I suppose the same could be said for arriving by air, but at least the trip is a whole lot shorter.

The airport is located nearly smack dab in the center of the pork chop-shaped island, reasonable walking distance from the Old Harbor region, which to me seemed the only part of the island that could truly be considered a town. An argument could be made for New Harbor as well, since both accommodate ferries and have homes and businesses clustered together. But Old Harbor is where things are happening, and was to my delight, a bit different than the Long Island beach towns I was used to.

Here, along the harbor ‘s shore, is a gauntlet of lively restaurants, pricey but character-laden landmark-type hotels, and enough souvenir shops to keep capitalism going another twenty years. There on Water Street one can easily imagine themselves in the Hamptons or Port Jefferson or Northport, with its beach chic New England vibe and trendy boutiques skewed toward the well-to-do. Yet there was a certain aura that left me, the lifelong Long Island resident, feeling as if I were discovering something new. It might only be a variation on a theme, but it was a variation all the same, and that is what makes travel in any form so appealing.

The Beach at Ballard's Inn

The Beach at Ballard’s Inn

Only a stone’s throw from the Old Harbor ferry pier is Ballard’s Inn, a dining and lodging venue located on a sandy spit with one of the island’s better beaches at its doorstep. In summer this is a bustling hotspot, not just for beachside dining but for live music and drinks. This isn’t a budget-friendly option, but if you’re looking to splurge a little bit, the seafood is great and the views can’t be beat – even if you’re a Long Islander.

In “town” it is possible to hire a taxi driver for a tour of the island, running at last check at around $55 per person for an hour long rundown of the island’s highlights. After hiring just such a guide, we were first taken to the appropriately-named North Lighthouse, which is situated on a narrow strip of land at the northern tip of Block Island. This area is part of the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge, which protects large swaths of the limited acreage left on the tiny landmass.

The bucolic setting of Block Island's interior

The bucolic setting of Block Island’s interior

Swinging back down to the southern shoreline, our guide pointed out various points of interest and explained that in an effort to prevent overdevelopment, landowners are required to own a certain number of acres in order to build. The finite nature of this resource has kept the island in a bucolic state of rolling meadows, serene ponds and plenty of temperate greenery. It has also sent real estate values through the roof; many of the island’s lovely homes are now worth something well north of a million dollars, though taxes are not anywhere near as high as they are just 14 miles to the west and beyond. Once again it was evident that Block Island and Long Island were separated by more than just water.

The Author Contemplating Mohegan Bluffs

The Author Contemplating Mohegan Bluffs

The topography on the south shore was reminiscent of the topography of Long Island’s north shore. At Southeast Lighthouse and the adjacent Mohegan Bluffs, visitors are greeted with a dramatic panorama of the Atlantic as viewed from about 150 feet above sea level. For anyone wishing to visit the rough waters but secluded beaches down below, you will find a staircase of over 100 steps that will take you there, and if you have the stamina, back up as well.

When it comes to getting around the island, there are a number of options. Its small size means that it can be efficiently and economically covered by bicycle, which are available for rent near the ferry docks in town. For those less concerned about their carbon footprint – or physical well-being – scooter rentals are very popular, though fraught with risk as many are injured in accidents each year. They have earned the scorn of the natives such as my taxi driver, who had less than complimentary remarks toward the reckless tourists who block the roads and hurt themselves and others. So if you do choose this option, be careful and play nice with the locals.

It may of taken me nearly my entire lifetime to get to Block Island, but I can honestly say that it was still worth the visit. After traveling the world I can rightly be considered a bit jaded, and as a Lawnguylinder even more jaded to the region’s charms. But as we took off from the small airfield and banked out over the Atlantic, I realized that I’ll never tire of seeing things so long as the view is fresh and the experience is new – even if it’s only 14 miles away.

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If You Want to Name a Building, Check First With Beijing

tiananmen

Nighttime at the Gates of the Forbidden City

China is known for a lot of great things. The Great Wall. Great take-out. And great deals on cheaply manufactured goods. But it is a little-known and rarely heralded fact that is my favorite of all Chinese contributions to our world heritage.

Their buildings have the coolest names.

While most Western buildings are named after architects, politicians – or even worse – corporations, ancient edifices in China retain majestic sounding monikers like Earth Tranquility Palace or Hall of Supreme Harmony. Even the Flatiron Building would have to admit that their names are way cooler than ours.

Granted, most people aren’t going to visit someplace just because it has a cool name. It would also have to have sites worthy of making a voyage halfway around the world. So of all the places that there are to see in China, the spot that gives you both some from Column A and some from Column B (you had to expect there was going to be a Chinese menu crack in here somewhere) is the capital Beijing.

In China’s great rush to modernize, many if not most of the crumbling traditional homes built around courtyards in narrow lanes have been replaced by modern high-rises. The armada of bicycles – once a staple and stereotype – is steadily being replaced by personal vehicles once reserved for only the well-to-do. All around, this monolithic grid of development centered on the Forbidden City is advancing into the modern world, impelling the present day visitor to see the old before it’s completely swallowed by the new.

The good news is that while not as cheap or simple to navigate as it used to be (i.e. when I last visited a dozen years ago) it still is a decent value, and the major sights – the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and nearby Great Wall – have withstood the onslaught of change, providing a safe haven for those wishing to witness the crowning works of Chinese heritage from an age before globalization. And fortunately a lot of the cool names have remained as well.

Within the walls of the Forbidden City

Within the walls of the Forbidden City

Located near the absolute center of the city, the Forbidden City was once the center of Chinese culture, housing the emperor and his court in an enclave off-limits to commoners for some 500 years. In this sprawling compound of ornately designed pavilions and sculptured stone, you can catch a glimpse of the same recurring theme that plays out in all former seats of empire, namely, that it truly is good to be the king. At least here the buildings all have grandiose sounding names like The Hall of Preserving Harmony or the Palace of Heavenly Purity. In my house we just call it the living room, but whatever.

Allow for at least half a day to explore, preferably with a knowledgeable guide to take it all in. You might not care which emperor did what, where and with whom, but the buildings certainly impress with their architecture and artistry. It’s not for nothing that 35% of all Chinese take-out restaurants in the US are named after the Forbidden City* (* this figure is just approximate and not based on any actual facts other than that’s how it seems to me. For more accurate information, please consult your phone book).

mvc00330Literally just outside the door from the Forbidden City is massive Tiananmen Square – site of the infamous uprising and many important buildings to the Chinese people, such as The Great Hall of the People (where the “legislature” meets), the Monument to the People’s Heroes (a granite obelisk commemorating key revolutionary events), and the morbidly fascinating Mao Zedong Mausoleum, or ‘Maosoleum‘ housing the embalmed remains of the man himself. While foreigners may view him with disdain, he is still a much-beloved character to the Chinese nation, so keep your wisecracks to yourself. You can also snag souvenirs imprinted with the image of his chubby cheeks (just like the one above the Gate of Heavenly Peace leading into the Forbidden City) on just about everything from key-rings to towels to any other trinket you can imagine. Where you’d actually get to display it is another story.

Tiantan Park, Beijing, China

Tiantan Park, Beijing, China

On the southern end of the square you’ll find the Qianmen section, which affords some great shopping opportunities as you make your way toward Tiantan Park, or Temple of Heaven. It is here that you’ll find the complex’s masterpiece The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests sitting on a terraced marble platform. Once an essential part of various rites performed on temple grounds, today it stands more as a tribute to architectural ingenuity, as the wooden pillars support a 100+ foot high ceiling without nails or cement. I don’t know how many take-out joints are named after it, but it still ranks as a must-see for visitors to Beijing.

Both islands and bridges have the coolest names at the Summer Palace, Beijing

Both islands and bridges have the coolest names at the Summer Palace, Beijing

The remaining two must-see attractions are located outside the city center. The Summer Palace, sitting only an inexpensive taxi ride away to the northwest, abounds in ambiance, water features, and buildings with really cool-sounding names. Situated around Kunming Lake, with plenty of gardens, visitors can take in the lovely setting by walking the shoreline and crossing ornate bridges with inspirational names like the Jade Belt Bridge or 17 Arch Bridge (OK, maybe that last one is a little less imaginative) to small islets housing structures with even-more inspirational names, like the Knowing in the Spring Pavilion, whose name, in my opinion, raises more questions than it answers (Know what? Know what???!!!!).

From the ferry dock on obviously-named South Lake Island, you can cross to the northern section of the palace grounds which houses the bulk of the fanciest structures as well as the bulk of the coolest names such as the Cloud Dispelling Hall, Wisdom Sea Temple, and the reassuringly-named Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. Brimming with color and artwork, a stroll around here will make your uphill climb well worth the effort – especially when you look back at your photo album.

Of course, visiting Beijing without seeing the Great Wall would be like visiting Paris without a stop at the Eiffel Tower, though the Badaling section of the wall is located an inconvenient fifty miles or so out of town. For the least amount of hassle, I recommend visiting on a guided tour, and if you’re already on one, you can be certain that you’ll be making a stop here and likely the nearby Ming Tombs as well.

My portrait in front of the Great Wall of China--many years before the invention of selfies.

My portrait in front of the Great Wall of China–many years before the invention of selfies.

Seeing the wall zigzagging along the irregular contours of the hilly landscape, you can easily understand why it is considered an ancient wonder, despite ridiculous claims that it is visible from space. Walking the wall is an undertaking in and of itself, as there are a plethora of stairs to be scaled from one tower to another. Supposedly Chairman Mao said that “a real man walks the Great Wall.” That may be true, but I say a smart man takes the cable car to the top and then makes his way down. Write that in your little red book!

A few words of advice regarding getting around. First of all, like objects in the rear-view mirror, distances between streets on a map are much greater here than they appear. Beijing is a very broad city, so if you plan to walk (or bike) keep this in mind. The subway, when I was there, couldn’t have been any easier to navigate. It consisted mainly of a loop line following the path of the boring but informatively-named Second Ring Road, intersected by a straight line crossing right through Tiananmen Square. It was a cheap and convenient way to cover large distances, and my only disappointment was the unimaginative names of Line 1 and Line 2. Now, there are over 14 lines, allowing for greater coverage of the expanding city at what are still very reasonable prices. Most of the names aren’t any more interesting, but it’s still better than walking.

Beijing is a city with feet planted in two very different worlds and I recommend that you see it before one foot slides to meet the other. In the meantime you can count on seeing sterling examples of Chinese cultural heritage, honest-to-goodness wonders of the ancient world, and as you may have noticed, some of the coolest names around. You’ll never look at take-out quite the same.

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Mouth For Sale: Introducing the New Presentations Page

Now my mouth - and not just my words - are for hire!

Now my mouth – and not just my words – are for hire!

I cordially invite all my readers to check out my new Presentation List page, highlighting the in-person programs I offer to libraries, schools, corporate events, prison support groups, flash mobs, random buildings with built-in projectors, or lonely people interested in travel with enough cash to hire me out.

Please take a minute to have a look and leave me some feedback on what works (or doesn’t). And if you or someone you know would be interested in learning more, by all means let me know!

Visit the Presentation List page here

Thanks again for your continued support!

Ben

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